Fraser Seitel
Fraser Seitel

In the 21st century, the public relations business is “big business.” Estimates of public relations agency revenues exceed $7 billion a year, and that’s big! However, the key variables in hiring and retaining a public relations agency haven’t changed much over the years. It still makes great good sense for a corporate buyer to be cautious before hiring a public relations agency.

Public Relations is not only difficult to define; it’s difficult to “purchase.” As one who has been on both the corporate and agency sides of Public Relations practice, the following “Baker’s Dozen” rules to guide the purchasers of public relations service might be helpful.

1) Whenever possible, seek competitive bids.

Consultants, like most of us, react in a more reasonable way when they know they have competition for the business. Whenever you can, put the consultant assignments out for bids assessing not only the most economical bidder but also the most creative.

By seeking competitive bids, you guard against consultant complacency.

They know they’re in a “fight” for the business and can’t take anything for granted.
Beyond this, of course, by seeking several bidders and making them spell out their intentions for the account, you can pick up valuable tactics that may have application later on. In a world that is “pure,” of course, such meritorious ideas should be paid for. Sadly, that is not always the case with public relations competitive bidding.

2) Get references and interview them.

You wouldn’t hire a new employee without checking references. Nor should you hire a consultant without discovering the experience that others have had in using the firm. Even larger, well known public relations firms should be checked. (They’ve got clunkers on staff, too!)

In soliciting references, avoid generalities. Ask specific questions of those for whom the consultant previously had worked.

  • What was the nature of the assignment you had the consultant work on?
  • Did he or she finish it on time, on budget, with a pleasant attitude?
  • Are you still using what was produced?
  • How do you suggest I use this consultant and his or her people?

References can be invaluable not only in determining the worth of a particular consultant but also in structuring your specific assignment.

3) Insist on specificity.

Make consultants specify exactly what their work will achieve; in other words, their goals. Make them commit to milestones along the way. Make them specify how much each element in the program will cost and what will be the anticipated results.

And set a time limit for when the program will conclude. Insisting on specifics keeps a consultant honest. You and he or she are both aware of what the program’s objectives are and whether or not they are being attained as time goes by.

4) Negotiate down larger retainer fees.

Certainly, there are public relations consultants today who are worth every bit of the $500 or $600 or higher per hour that they ask.

But not every one in Public Relations who asks for a high fee is worth it.

Every public relations consultant wants a high monthly retainer fee. Depending on the assignment, six-figure monthly fees are not unheard of.

Consultants may suggest such stratospheric retainers. But don’t automatically agree. Rather, negotiate with the consultant. Counter offer to start the firm at a reduced rate – hopefully a much reduced rate – to give both parties time to assess and work into the relationship.

If, after several months of activity, the consultant proves invaluable and well worth it, then revise the agreement accordingly.

But don’t give in to the first proposal. If you’re reluctant, push back on the retainer fee. In these days, where clients are precious, most of the time a consultant will lower an exorbitant initial retainer proposal.

5) Challenge monthly bills.

And speaking of costs, don’t be a patsy with the charges you receive. Review monthly bills monthly.

Check the mode of transportation that firm representatives use to visit the company. Do they take the subway or fly first class? Where do they stay when they do out-of-town work for you? Do they favor the Ritz or bunk at Motel Six?

Where do they eat on project time? Grenouille or Wendy’s?

And what about those annoying telephone, copying, and messenger costs? Are they really necessary? And how much are they being marked up?

The point is that it’s your company’s – and your stockholders’ – money. You should treat it as your own. So scrutinize and challenge, if necessary, every monthly bill the consultant sends. If the firm gets away with something early in the relationship then by your initial silence, you condone this behavior. And you deserve to be gouged further, as surely you will be.

6) Beware the management audit.

The first thing any self-respecting PR consultant wants to do is “get to know” the organization by interviewing the senior management team. Resist this request whenever possible.

First, top executives are busy and don’t have time to be interviewed by every new outsider hired to consult the company.

Second, some consultants use the “management audit” as a guise to get to higher ranking executives for future considerations.

So while there’s nothing wrong in concept with first researching the beliefs and aspirations of senior management, you, as the firm’s public relations professional and conscience of the organization – not to mention sponsor of the consultant, – should approach the “management audit” with caution or at least question its necessity.

7) Don’t leap for the big “name.”

There are an awful lot of published authors, former congressmen, media personalities, and quasi-celebrities running around masquerading as “public relations consultants.” In many cases their specialty is who they know, not what they know.

Nothing wrong with being “connected” but...sometimes people of this ilk who claim they are “plugged in” may well have had the “plug” pulled when they left office.

Much better than hiring a former or quasi-anything as a PR consultant is retaining a firm in whom you have confidence and with whom you are familiar and comfortable. Indeed, many veteran consultant-users suggest that “personal chemistry” between the client and the consultant is an eminently more meaningful measure than the name recognition or celebrity status of the advisor.

8) Buy creativity.

Just as you don’t want to buy a consulting firm for its name or hire someone you can’t stand, neither should you dish out hard-earned corporate money for mediocre advice.

In other words, avoid the “shelf shill” the consultant whose every answer is safe, bland, and straight off-the-shelf, having been used many times before. You have the right to insist that you not be “peddled” the research, analysis, or solutions used for other clients. As W. Edwards Deming, a founder of the quality improvement movement in Japan and the United States, put it, “Don’t look for instant-pudding answers.”

Rather, hire creativity. You and your staff can provide “safe” counsel to management. You hire a consultant to bring you a different, more creative perspective from which you can reach a more thoughtful conclusion.

And don’t stereotype a PR consultant by the size of the firm. Some boutique firms are deliciously creative. But other times, some of the largest consultants are the most creative and some of the smallest are the least.

9) Insist on “social media” inclusion.

The tool of social media is no longer an “option” for corporate clients; it’s a necessity. Using social media, like using traditional media, is a facility with which every public relations agency should be conversant.

While some firms “specialize” in social media, the fact is that communicating via social media -- Facebook and Twitter and Youtube and all the rest -- has become commonplace in the practice of public relations. Therefore, a social media component must be included in every agency representation pitch. So insist on it.

10) Resist the “waffler.”

By the same token, the worst advice a consultant can offer is “waffling” advice counsel that yings and yangs but never commits to a specific point of view. “On the one hand, you might do this...but on the other hand...,” etc.

Advice like this just isn’t worth the money. PR consultants must stand for something. Make them commit to a point of view. How else can you find out how good they are?
The kind of thumb-sucking analysis that leads to over-prudence and a risk-adverse paralysis isn’t something you should buy.

10) Beware “hidden extras.”

Keep your eyes open and your wallet closed to the “nose-under-the-tent” phenomenon that enables a consultant, once through the corporate door, to rack up additional revenues through the sale of extra services such as special reports, extraordinary research, and seconding outside experts to assist.

Occasionally, services outside the parameters of the consulting contract might well be advisable. But these should be discussed in advance of contract signing, so both sides understand the nature of the agreement.

Sometimes a PR counseling firm will start you off for “free” with a service you haven’t requested as a special bonus for signing on. Then after a few months of receiving the bonus, you are asked to pay for it. Unless the service is in fact“special” don’t bite. Keep your mind and your money on why you hired the consultant in the first place.

11) Make demands.

You’ve hired the consultant for a reason. Maybe he or she thinks better than you do, and you are paying for the privilege of using the consultant’s brain. So use it often.

Call frequently for advice and counsel. Make consultants know that you’re depending on them and plan to get what you’re paying for. Make a habit of talking to all consultants at least once every couple of weeks.

If a consultant takes you for granted he’ll never produce. By the same token, a consultant who is unsure about what the client wants will also fall short. Rather, as one design consultant put it, you want to be the client the consultant thinks about at 10 o’clock at night.

12) Quickly disengage.

Finally, don’t be reluctant to fire a consultant. Sometimes the client and consultant just don’t click or you overestimated the potential of the assignment or the relationship.

If you find the consultant offers neither increased brain power nor inspired creativity and also isn’t especially thrilling to be around, there’s no shame in quickly disengaging.

In addition, keep your eyes open about “cancellation clauses” at the start of a PR consultant relationship. Many firms insist on cancellation notices of two to six months and stipulate as much in their contracts. Suggest instead a one-month cancellation clause be adopted.

By relying on rules like these dozen, you can help ensure that the counsel you receive is well worth what you pay for it.


Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, author and teacher for 40 years. He is author of the Pearson text “The Practice of Public Relations,” now in its 13th edition, and co-author of “Rethinking Reputation" and "Idea Wise.” He may be reached directly at [email protected].